FILMS

Reign of terror

Gangster movies battle it out at the cinema

Brian D. Johnson October 1 1990
FILMS

Reign of terror

Gangster movies battle it out at the cinema

Brian D. Johnson October 1 1990

Reign of terror

FILMS

Gangster movies battle it out at the cinema

Gangster movies are back—with a vengeance. In The Godfather Part III, scheduled to open in November, the Corleone family returns to the screen after a 16-year absence. But in the meantime, a new generation of mob movies is appearing in theatres this fall, marking a departure from The Godfather's operatic grandeur. Instead of glamorizing the Mafia aristocracy, they focus on the middle managers, the opportunists who have barely clawed their way out of the working class. State of Grace, starring Sean Penn as a paragon of sensitivity among IrishAmerican thugs, is forgettable—and graceless. But two other new gangster movies are extraordinary. GoodFellas displays the brilliance of director Martin Scorsese. And Miller’s Crossing marks another triumph for the ingenuity of Joel and Ethan Coen, the blackhumored brothers who made the elegantly twisted murder tale Blood Simple (1984).

Both GoodFellas and Miller’s Crossing feature kinetic violence, blood that spreads in dark pools and dialogue rich with profanity and slang. Adopting the gangsters’ viewpoint in both cases, the film-makers tread a fine line between sympathy and satire. But Goodfellas is based on a true story rendered with impeccable authenticity, while Miller’s Crossing is an invention full of stylish conceits.

In GoodFellas, Scorsese returns to familiar

turf with Robert De Niro, who played a hoodlum in the director’s Mean Streets (1973) and a boxer in Raging Bull (1980). Another tale of Italian-Americans in New York City, GoodFellas fits squarely into the tradition of those two classics. It covers three decades in the lives of three middle-level mobsters. Ray Liotta plays the diligent, upwardly mobile Henry Hill, the central character in a movie that has no hero. De Niro portrays Hill’s discreet mentor, Jimmy (The Gent) Conway. And Joe Pesci—memorable for his performance opposite De Niro in Raging Bull—appears as the pugnacious, trig-

ger-happy Tommy DeVito. (In real life, Hill now has a new identity under the U.S. federal witness protection program, Conway is in jail, and DeVito was killed in a gangland slaying.)

The movie is based on the 1987 book Wiseguy, an inside look at the Mafia by New York journalist Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the script with Scorsese. The story begins in the 1950s, a golden age for America and the Mafia. Hill is a half-Irish, half-Sicilian boy from Brooklyn, N.Y., who is adopted by neighborhood gangsters in his early teens. He becomes infatuated with the lifestyle, the wealth and the privileges of organized crime. He marries a nice Jewish girl (Lorraine Braceo). He keeps a mistress. But over the years, the security of his Mafia lifestyle disintegrates. Murder gets to be a habit—as does cocaine. In the end, the drug consumes Hill and his business, sending him into a frenetic tailspin.

Charting Hill’s progress from the 1950s to the 1980s, from innocence to corruption, Scorsese mirrors the larger evolution of American culture. The images accelerate as the years pass. And so does the sound track, which begins with ballads by Tony Bennett and Bobby Vinton, gears up to girl-group pop, rips through the Rolling Stones and ends in punk overdrive with Sid Vicious singing My Way.

Employing an unaffected, documentary style, Scorsese directs with breathtaking energy. He takes a let-it-bleed approach—letting comedy and drama collide and overlap. Periodically, and with little warning, the movie’s wry, quirky tone is shattered by electrifying bursts of melodrama. Even before the end of the opening credits, there is a gruesome scene in which DeVito repeatedly plunges a kitchen knife into a half-dead body while Tony Bennett croons the song Rags to Riches on the sound track. The movie’s violence is stomach-churning but, to Scorsese’s credit, it never seems glorified, gratuitous or fake.

The title, GoodFellas, refers to a term of endearment that gangsters use for each other. Without moralizing, Scorsese explores the cruelty that underlies male fellowship, the terror behind the hyena laughter of men devouring a nasty joke. His movie is a slice of life—and death—from a criminal culture that seems an exaggerated version of the world outside. Funny and frightening, unpredictable and provocative, GoodFellas may be the most authentic Mafia picture ever made. The acting is su-

perb, and so natural that no one—least of all De Niro—seems to be performing. Although he has top billing, De Niro plays a character so oblique that he almost escapes notice.

Miller’s Crossing is more stylized. The Coen brothers’ script is unnaturally witty, the performances archly contrived. But the film is compelling in its own way. Set in the Prohibition era, it is a fictional tale of rival gangs in an unnamed American city. As the story begins, an Irish-American crime boss, Leo (Albert Finney), is bstening to an Italian-American gangster, Caspar Qon Polito), lament the deterioration of “et’ics” in the underworld. “It’s getting so a businessman can't expect a fair return on a fixed fight,” whines Caspar, pointing out that a fight-fixer named Bemie Cohn Turturro) has been cheating him. “So you want to kill him?” asks Leo. “For starters,” says Caspar. But Leo is intent on protecting Bemie, because he is having an affair with Bernie’s sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Meanwhile, Leo’s right-hand man, Tom (Gabriel Byrne), who is secretly involved with Verna, tries to persuade his boss that killing Bernie makes more sense than offending Caspar.

That is just the setup for an intrigue of double-crossed allegiances. Tom, the main character, plays the angles with the instincts of a pool shark, eventually betraying his own heart for the sake of expediency. Meanwhile, Leo still clings to the old virtues of mob loyalty. In an astonishing scene, while Danny Boy soars on the sound track, Leo—wearing a maroon smoking jacket—fends off a gang of assailants with a blazing machine-gun, keeping one man’s twitching body suspended on a hail of bullets for what seems like an eternity.

The violence, like the rest of Miller’s Crossing, is poetically staged, and strangely tasteful. But the movie’s real firepower is in the staccato slang of its script, which the Coen brothers say was inspired by the prose of novelist Dashiell Hammett. The characters talk about “grifters” (con men) and “guineas” (Italians) and getting “wacked” (killed). Their standard greeting is “What’s the rumpus?”

The exotic dialogue fuels some fine performances. Finney displays magnificent rage. Byrne is a tightly wound enigma. Turturro is devastating as the slimy, unctuous Bemie. And Polito plays Caspar as a grotesque parody of an Italian crime boss—he has a fat wife, a fat child and a fat tongue that gets in the way of his words when he talks. The Italian-American community has protested the use of ethnic stereotypes in GoodFellas. But they pale in comparison to those in Miller’s Crossing.

Both movies, however, have enough intelligence to explode the clichés that they exploit. They are both about men who become trapped in brotherhoods of blood. In Miller’s Crossing, there is a recurring image of a black hat. The hat, which Tom keeps losing, is a symbol for pride, identity—for manhood itself. Both Miller’s Crossing and Goodfellas are stories of men who are so busy hanging on to their hats that they lose track of their hearts.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON